Put the world in zugzwang

Sunday, October 3, 2021 by Louie Bacaj

In 2008 I worked in a restaurant as a waiter.

I had been in the restaurant business since at least 14 years old. By the age of 23, in 2008, I worked at Enzos Restaurant, one of the best authentic Italian restaurants in The Bronx at the time.

I was putting in between 60 and 70 hours a week of work in that place. But at least the customers loved me, and their excellent tips expressed this.

You see, I graduated during the financial crisis and right off the peak of the outsourcing of technical jobs. I was struggling to get my career started, so I was forced to work in the restaurant. My family needed money and I could not play around with the opportunity. But I didn't view it as beneath me or as a temporary thing; I thought I might be doing it forever. So I may as well get good at it. Besides the long hours, I worked incredibly hard to make sure customers had a fantastic dining experience.

Long story short, the owner had a falling out with his manager at the time. As he looked around he struggled to find anyone more reliable or more loved by customers than me as he looked around for a replacement. So he was forced to ask me if I wanted a promotion. I was proud of that promotion. It was a big deal for me at the time. It was validation that even in that challenging environment, food business is not easy; I had done a great job to make it to the top of the food chain. (No pun intended)

I had worked so hard that the owner was in an impossible position. If he did not promote me, he would've risked losing me. He saw all the value with his own eyes, customers told him all about the value, and he had no choice.

The owner of Enzos, Enzo DiRendi, was in a zugzwang.

A zugzwang is a situation in chess where your opponent is obligated to put you in a winning position. It is your opponent's turn to make a move, and that move will put you in an advantageous position. I had played a lot of chess in my youth, and I knew all about accumulating so much value little by little that eventually, my chess opponents would be forced to pay it back.

But I didn't just put Enzo in a zugzwang; I proceeded to apply the principle to other roles too. It is how I got to be one of the youngest senior directors of engineering in all of Walmart in just a few short years. The value that me and my teams added was so significant and undeniable that they had no choice but to put me and my teams in advantageous positions or risk losing us.

"...the initial position is decisive Zugzwang."- Jon Speelman, The Observer Sunday 9 June 1996

Now we come full circle to the world itself.

You see, I think we could put the world itself in a zugzwang. We could give so much value to the world that eventually, when it has to make a move, it has no choice but to put us in an advantageous position.